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Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

A perennial, deadly nightshade is, as its name suggests, highly poisonous.

Common name: deadly nightshade

Scientific name: Atropa belladonna

Family: Solanaceae

What does deadly nightshade look like?

Leaves: oval in shape with pointed ends. The leaves are untoothed so have a smooth edged appearance. Leaves grow on stalks in an alternate arrangement on the plant stem.

Flowers: bell shaped, showing a green and purple colouration. Flowers are around 2.5-3cm long.

Fruits: black in colour with five sepals visible where the fruit attaches to the plant. The berries are poisonous and should not be eaten.

Not to be confused with...

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara): also referred to as woody nightshade, this plant has the same colour flowers as deadly nightshade. The flowers of bittersweet however have noticeable yellow anthers and they are suspended from purple stems. The berries of this plant are red in colour as opposed to the black berries of deadly nightshade but they are also poisonous.

Where and when to find deadly nightshade

Where: mainly in scrubby areas, and woodland but also along paths and banks. This plant can be found in the southern half of Britain on calcareous soil and in disturbed areas.

When: a perennial which flowers from June to September.

Value to wildlife

Some birds may eat the berries of deadly nightshade although they are more likely to take fruits from other plant species. The berries are also poisonous to various mammals.

Uses and folklore

Medicine: deadly nightshade has various uses. Medicines made from the plant are said to ease abdominal problems and motion sickness. It is also used by eye surgeons, in a very refined state, as it dilates the pupils.

Poetry: deadly nightshade has featured in several poems such as ‘Town Owl’ by the famous English poet Laurie Lee.

Folklore: the plant's Latin name, Atropa, was derived from the Greek Atropos, who was a goddess of fate and could end human life. The rest of the Latin name, belladonna, refers to its use as an eye beauty treatment, to dilate women’s pupils.